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    Lt. General theFreeman's Avatar
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    Literacy in the Roman Empire?

    How high approximately was the literacy in the Roman Empire at its height?

    I'm curious could common people read and write?
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    16% at it's height. 7% at the end.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Castro View Post
    16% at it's height. 7% at the end.
    Where's those numbers from?

    I find it very unlikely that they would be so precise.

    Could it be numbers only for the "citizens" or such?
    Quite a different guy for quite a different world.

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    Field Marshal Finnish Dragon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theFreeman View Post
    How high approximately was the literacy in the Roman Empire at its height?

    I'm curious could common people read and write?
    Define common people.

    Ok, seriously speaking I would assume that Roman citizens generally knew how to read and write especially if these Roman citizens have served in Roman Legions. Literate soldiers in well-disciplined forces were formidable and efficient warriors like an article from JSTOR proves.

    Some issues like using passwords, giving written orders indicate that Roman soldiers had to know how to read at least if they wanted to receive promotions and receive better salary. I am not claiming that every Roman citizen could read but I am quite certain that literacy among Roman soldiers was pretty high.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Finnish Dragon View Post
    Define common people.

    Ok, seriously speaking I would assume that Roman citizens generally knew how to read and write especially if these Roman citizens have served in Roman Legions. Literate soldiers in well-disciplined forces were formidable and efficient warriors like an article from JSTOR proves.

    Some issues like using passwords, giving written orders indicate that Roman soldiers had to know how to read at least if they wanted to receive promotions and receive better salary. I am not claiming that every Roman citizen could read but I am quite certain that literacy among Roman soldiers was pretty high.
    Roman armies had officers and NCOs whose job was to read and write orders and relay them to the grunts, just like in modern (19th century) armies. I doubt bothered to teach the average grunt how to read and write... their job was to march and camp, to crucify people and hack them apart with sharp tools if they resisted, not write letters

    That being said I suppose most people in the countryside would have a neighbor or relative who knew how to read, if the need arose. We know the wealthy classes valued education highly, I suppose it must have rubbed off onto the lower classes as well.

    However keep in mind the life of a Roman peasant in the 2nd century AD was not so different from that of a peasant in the 12th century, and we know those got by without reading or writing. The Romans had no public school system and something like the monasteries or bishopric schools also did not exist. I don't see any intrinsic factors which would favor widespread literacy among the peasants or artesans in ancient Rome, other than mimicking the preferences and habitus of the upper classes.

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    10 per cent

    In 1st century christian communities very few people could read and Revelation says "blessed are those who hear this book". Somewhere I read around 10% of the Christian Communities could read in the mid 4th century. My first Arabic tutor could not read but corrected my pronunciation. Only 60% of Egypt today is literate. Languages with an alphabet are relatively easy to learn, which makes all this even more surprising.
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    Premature anti-fascist Abdul Goatherd's Avatar

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    Estimates I have: 10% at best in Italy, 5% at best in the provinces.

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    So my Latin teachers strange claim that everybody could read is wrong as I thought I am pleased
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    Field Marshal Olaus Petrus's Avatar
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    In the Roman Empire people usually used professional scribes when they needed something written down and everyone with little money could hire one. Rich people naturally had their slaves who worked as scribes and teachers. While rich were often well educated they didn't necessarily read or write often themselves even if they could do that*. Public notices etc. were written, but also publicly announced so that most people could unserstand those.

    Literature was made to be read aloud and not to be read quietly like today, because it was only in the middle ages when people actually started to read literature privately.

    *I remember seeing some examples of the written letters which nobles had written themselves and those had considerably worse hands than in the letters which they had dictated to their slaves. It seems that letters written by own hand were more personal than those written by profesional scribes.
    Last edited by Olaus Petrus; 04-05-2010 at 21:01.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Skarion View Post
    Where's those numbers from?
    I made them up, for fun.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Olaus Petrus View Post
    Literature was made to be read aloud and not to be read quietly like today, because it was only in the middle ages when people actually started to read literature privately.
    That's a myth that was refuted almost 40 years ago - it survival has more to do with how it stoked the ego of Medieval historians like Lynn White and his ideals about Medieval technological revolution vs. Classical/Roman stagnation than any sound basis is fact.

    That this ideal still gets asserted in Medieval and Biblical history works/books/journals is profoundly worrisome given how comprehensive ejournal access and searching is now.

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    Ovid

    I had heard that as well. It puzzled me because some classical writers wrote knowing their work could not be read aloud because it was banned or they were in bad graces with the authorities. Juvenal and Ovid come to mind. Plus all the annalists wrote to maintain a record of events that were read in private.
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    Quote Originally Posted by conon394 View Post
    That's a myth that was refuted almost 40 years ago - it survival has more to do with how it stoked the ego of Medieval historians like Lynn White and his ideals about Medieval technological revolution vs. Classical/Roman stagnation than any sound basis is fact.

    That this ideal still gets asserted in Medieval and Biblical history works/books/journals is profoundly worrisome given how comprehensive ejournal access and searching is now.
    I'm by no means expert in that particular subject, because my knowledge is based on what I have read from university textbooks. But if I remember correctly there was wide consensus in those books that there was movement from loud reading to silent reading between between the late antiquity and high middle ages. Naturally silent reading wasn't unknown in the antiquity, but it seems that once writing techniques developed it became easier to read silently. Ancient sources seem to describe silent reading as something which requires great concentration, while high medieval sources start to see it as a normal thing. But naturally also medieval society was in many ways oral society where many works were meant to be read aloud.

    Most of the textbooks we used were rather recent works and certainly not 40 years old, but I have to check from my personal archives if I could find names of those books, because it's been quite a while since I studied medieval writing. Meanwhile I'm interested if you could point out some of the most important works which dispute this theory.

    Quote Originally Posted by senex View Post
    I had heard that as well. It puzzled me because some classical writers wrote knowing their work could not be read aloud because it was banned or they were in bad graces with the authorities. Juvenal and Ovid come to mind. Plus all the annalists wrote to maintain a record of events that were read in private.
    Nothing prevents reading controversial stuff aloud inside the walls of a private home.
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  14. #14
    Meanwhile I'm interested if you could point out some of the most important works which dispute this theory.
    Sure - I hope you don't mind if I just cut and past a series of posts I made about 2 years ago.

    This series of posts started out in reply to someone bringing up the noted examples of Augustine's mention of his mentors silent reading...

    First Part:

    Slow day at work with lost of access to Online Journals so about reading silently…

    That silent reading was unknown is likely very overstated – or in the words M. F. Burnyeat (1) about the story in question a myth; “… the widespread myth that Augustine in the forth century A.D. was amazed by Ambrose’s silent reading;”.

    The idea that reading silently was rare and exceptional was established as conventional wisdom by Josef Balogh in an article he publish back in 1927(2,3,4)(Edit: looks like he was actually following a brief mention of the Ambose story by Eduard Norden in 1898 in Die antike Kunstprosa). Balogh’s conclusion was pretty much in line with the typical understanding of the Ambrose story; that all classical reading was aloud and that silent readers was rare and viewed as surprising or amazing. It has remained a very resilient conclusion even though Bernard Knox offered a very complete and harsh rebuttal of the Balogh’s conclusions in the 60’s (5).

    Knox argues that Balogh was pretty much flat wrong and that he was more or less looking to find evidence to support the Ambrose story no matter how much he had to twist facts. This is mostly aimed the later Roman evidence where he shows Balogh passed over or just misinterpreted evidence from Rome of silent reading. He also takes Balogh to task for missing large amounts evidence from 5th and 4th century Athens that implies private letters, short notes, and similar non literature was typically read silently. Finally Knox also notes that Augustine mentions elsewhere in his writing that he (Augustine) could read silently in a mater of fact way.

    Overall Knox concludes: that literary works (novels etc) were often read aloud but convention or tradition dictated this, not need (thus Cicero might read aloud but could read silently and did); while private correspondence, business and legal documents, notes, etc were generally read silently.

    That fact that literary works were still commonly read aloud is often chalked up to a cultural of ‘orality’ with respect to how literary works were composed expected to enjoyed ;and also the assumed difficulty of reading long texts in roll form with modern punctuation. The view of any particular historian about silent reading tends to influence with just how much emphasis they place of these ideals - for example Knox less so, GL Hendrickson more so.

    Balogh’s work seems to keep getting cited, however and so recently the conclusions of Knox and Clark have been restated and reinforced by F Gillirad, M. F. Burnyeat, and Garilov (6,7,8). Gillirad essentially restates Knox’s case and added a few more example of silent reading. He also revisits the Ambrose story and concluded it is misinterpreted. Gillirad's take is like Clark’s that the surprise is that Ambose is always reading silently; even when with friends. Garilov adds a whole appendix of examples of silent reading and feels that Augustine was amazed because he viewed the silent reading as downright rude and reclusive. Finally Burnyeat adds some polemic and a reference to Ptolemy suggesting that there is a time and place for reading aloud, and for silent reading. In particular Ptolemy states that one should learn hard texts reading silently.

    Edit: hmm I could have saved time and just posted the abstract of William Johnson's even more recent look at the whole debate (Am Jornal of Philology 121 2000)...

    " TOWARD A SOCIOLOGY OF READING IN CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY WILLIAM A. JOHNSON IN THE LAST CENTURY, scholarly debate on ancient reading has largely revolved around the question “Did the ancient Greeks and Romans read aloud or silently?” Given the recent work of Gavrilov and Burnyeat, which has set the debate on new, seemingly firmer, footing, the question is at first glance easily answered.1 Without hesitation we can now assert that there was no cognitive difficulty when fully literate ancient readers wished to read silently to themselves, and that the cognitive act of silent reading was neither extraordinary nor noticeably unusual in antiquity. This conclusion has been known to careful readers since at least 1968, when Bernard Knox demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the silent reading of ancient documentary texts, including letters, is accepted by ancient witnesses as an ordinary event.2 Gavrilov and Burnyeat have improved the evidential base, by refining interpretation (especially Gavrilov on Augustine), by focusing on neglected but important evidence (Burnyeat on Ptolemy), and by adding observations from cognitive psychology.3 The resulting clarity is salutary. Yet I suspect many will be dissatisfied with the terms in which the debate has been couched. I know that I am. Can we be content with a discussion framed in such a narrow—if not blinkered—fashion? In the fury of battle, the terms of the dispute have crystallized in an unfortunate way. That is, the..."


    ----


    1. Postscript on Silent Reading by M. F. Burnyeat (The Classical Quarterly, 1997).

    2. Voces Paginarum by Josef Balogh (Philogus 82, 1927).

    3. In the article Ancient Reading, GL Hendrickson took a similar position to Balogh in 1929 (The Classical Journal), He was however more cautious concluding that reading aloud was the norm, but silent reading was not unknown, and probably not uncommon. In addition he also leans toward the ideal the reading aloud would be more common for literary works, and is also cautious about generalizing from the predominantly late Roman evidence to the Greeks.

    4. WP Clark in a short note (Ancient Reading Classical Journal 26, 1931) questioned the common take on the Ambrose story – not the fact of silent reading, but always silent reading. Clark also pointed out some evidence from Cicero for silent reading. But as Knox notes the article was largely ignored.

    5. Silent Reading in Antiquity Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 9:4 1968.

    6. More Silent Reading in Antiquity: Non Omne Verbum Sonabat, F Gillirad Journal of Biblical Literature 112 1993).

    7. Burnyeat above.

    8. Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity A K Garilov, Classical Quarterly 47 (1997)


    Part 2:

    A response to this reply:

    So reading a literary work silently would be like reading sheet music silently and for pleasure?
    In a way…

    Johnson's addresses that point at length, since he doesn’t buy at face value the culture or ‘orality’ or the ideal that literature was too hard to read quietly*.

    His take leans toward the ideal that literature was commonly read aloud because intended for social consumption with friends, family students, etc. So his answer would seem to be yes if the family gathered around the piano after dinner they really would not expect the player to just read the music to themselves…

    *edit:

    Johnson makes a telling argument against reading aloud dictated by lack of punctuation etc. in book rolls, by noting that the classical world was well acquainted with punctuation but specifically ignored it for literary texts.

    He offers several examples:

    School texts typically included word spacing, legal or technical documents featured punctuation spacing and other aids to clarity, the Romans had used word spacing before there general adoption of Hellenistic literary forms.

    Thus he argues the literary book roll sans punctuation was the result of definite choice not the lack of writing technique.



    Part 3:

    A response to this reply:


    Umm... that seems to be a complete misinterpretation of what Augustine said, surely? "Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud." The emphasis on how 'anyone could approach him freely' doesn't sound to me like a condemnation of someone for being reclusive. And Augustine comments specifically on the fact that Ambrose is often discovered reading silently when he's alone - contradicting the Gillirad theory that this would be normal activity.

    Of course, it may be a mistake to generalise about standards of literacy in 4th-century Italy to the rest of the Classical world...
    Not if you look at more than just a sentence or two.

    Here is a more extensive section of the passage (from Garvrilov).

    I was not at that stage groaning in my prayers that Thou wouldst come to help me. Rather, my anxious mind was intent on finding out and talking things over. Ambrose himself I pictured as one who must be blessed with the happiness of this world, since such important persons looked up to him; his celibacy was the only thing that to me seemed a burden. As for his hopes, and the struggle he had to keep up against the temptations of eminence itself, what consoled him in adversity, and how the inner mouth-the one in his heart-fed upon the nourishing joy of Thy bread, all that I lacked the knowledge even to guess at. Likewise, he did not know my anguish or the snares that threatened me, since I could not ask him the questions I wanted to ask in the way I wanted to ask them-I could never gain his ear and have words with him, because he was surrounded by crowds of busy people whose needs he was attending to. And when he was not with them, which was never for long, he would either refresh his body with the sustenance it needed, or his mind with reading. But when he was reading, his eyes travelled across the pages and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and tongue stayed still. Often we would be there-no-one was forbidden entry, but equally it was not the custom for anyone's entry to be announced to him-and we would see him reading silently. He always read like that. And having sat for a long time in silence (for who would dare disturb one so engrossed in study?), we would go away, guessing that, because he had so little leisure to refresh his mind, he was taking a rest from the clamour of other people's affairs and did not want to be distracted. Perhaps also he was protecting himself in case an obscure passage in the author he was reading led to his having to produce an explanation for some anxiously attentive listener, or to getting involved in a discussion of dificult issues. Time spent on this would result in his not reading as many books as he wished. A more legitimate reason for his reading silently could perhaps have been that he needed to spare his voice, which was all too liable to go hoarse. Whatever his reason for behaving this way, with that man we may be sure it was a good one.

    At all events I had no opportunity to make the inquiries I wanted to make of his heart, Thy holy oracle, save only when it was something brief in the telling. That anguish of mine, which so urgently needed pouring out to him at his leisure, never found him so.


    With more context I don’t have a problem with Clark and Gillirad’s mild take; that the issues is was that fact Ambrose was always reading to himself, not the fact of silent reading that is in question. I think that Garvrilov’s more extreme argument is perceptive though – Augustine wrote not a History like Thucydides but a personal story of his journey to faith. Thus Garvrilov‘s emphasis that Ambrose’s hobby is seen as something of an irritant to Augustine who wants to talk with his mentor but cannot, and that is what is being communicated to the reader of Augustine’s work– not a Thucydides-like digression on a novel trait or development.

    Johnson’s also looks at the passage in a larger context and concludes Augustine is surprised not so much for personal reasons, but vexed that Ambrose a man learning and who owns many books (when most own few if any) should be sharing his books and thoughts on them with his students.

    In any case even under typical take – Augustine amazed at the silent reading it remains a singular data point and not simply the popularly know vanguard of a host. The accumulated weight evidence Clark, Knox, Garilov, Gillirad, Burnyeat (and several others - a number historians have noted the evidence from classical Athens cited by Knox but only argued for silent reading in Athens) is such that the general proposition that all reading was aloud in Antiquity simply cannot stand.

    Even the more restrained position that the complexity of literary works combined with continuous script required that they at least had to read aloud in order to be understood does not seem defensible.


    What the heck? Why shouldn't someone be able to read silently?
    Well the reasoning starts with Eduard Norden when he commented on the Augustine's story. Since he focused on the fact of silent reading being the surprising thing he looked for and found a reason - the lack of punctuation and the use of continuous script on rolled books. Balogh mustered evidence to show that people in the Classical world often did read aloud. So there you have it: it was too hard and people expected oral performances of literature.

    The two recent works reignited the debate: Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading by Saenger, and Article by Achtemeier (Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity Journal of Biblical Literature 109 1990); reiterate the same two points - an oral culture and the difficulty of reading. Both also ignore almost entirely all the work since Balogh

    Saenger argues that silent reading was practically imposable because of continuous script and lack of punctuation. The second reason offered is that people did not - the Elites who produced the literature and were its audience viewed it as an extension of an oral culture and that it was to be read aloud. The use of lectors and dictating to secretaries (among wealth Romans) is also brought in to reinforce the ideal of an oral culture. Thus say the fact that Pliny the Elder or Caesar increased their efficiency by dictating to multiple secretaries is used to argue completeness of oral thinking. Achtemeier concludes that no reading or writing occurred without speaking.

    I’m personally a little suspect on this last point beyond the counter arguments offered by the articles I cited. In a world without glasses and not the best lighting I don’t find it that unlikely those with money would turn to dictation.

    Consider also the stock scene in movies from any time from the 30’s through the 50’s; executives are always dictating to their secretary or into a dictation machine. Aside from any issue of oral culture it seems like an obvious status activity - I don’t have to write for myself like some craftsman, and can afford educated slaves to boot.

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